Monday, August 20, 2012

Grammar Grows Up

When I was a kid, English teachers had two Golden Rules that we were not permitted to violate:  

1.  Never end a sentence with a preposition. 
2.  And never split an infinitive. 

We received a reprieve most of the time in colloquial English, but never in written English. 

Now, a recent op-ed in the UK-based Telegraph ( says that splitting infinitives is not just forgivable;  it is, in fact, “a sacred duty.”  Especially when not splitting the infinitive clouds the meaning of your communications.

Look, for instance, at the verb “double.”  Author Tom Chivers writes:  “If the quantity you are measuring more than doubles, where do you put your infinitive? … ‘We expect it more than to double’ or ‘We expect it to double more than’? The first is weird; the second is even weirder.”

“It’s even worse,” Chivers says, “when your desperate efforts to maintain a pure and unsullied infinitive lead you to twist your sentence” until its meaning becomes murky.  He cites an example ( from linguist Robert Lawrence Trask:   “She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.”   If you move “gradually,” where do you put it? 

“She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.”  This sounds like the decision was gradual.

“She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually”  sounds like the collecting of bears was gradual.

“She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected” and “She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected” are both just plain awkward.

I agree with Tom Chivers:  “The only unambiguous and natural place for the adverb is in [the middle of] the infinitive.”

To speak clearly:  clarity always trumps a pompous regard for niceties of grammar.  After all, how can you possibly improve on the mission of the Starship Enterprise:  “to boldly go”?

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